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Victorians and the Underground 

Melissa McDaniel 

A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of 
Requirements of the CSU Honors Program 

for Honors in the degree of 

Bachelor of Arts 


Language and Literature, 

College of Arts and Letters, 

Columbus State University 

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Victorians and the Underground 
The Victorian Age created a revolution in technology that defined the age and has 
fostered its social ideologies. In every civilization, the technologies of the time reflect the social 
issues of the culture. For instance, the development of the printing press in the fifteenth-century 
revealed desires for higher literacy rates; the invention of the cotton gin incited the social 
injustices of American slavery; the progress of the Internet embodies this century's attachment to 
fast-food, fast-money, and fast-information. Likewise, in the Victorian Age, the invention of 
underground tunnels exposed some important social issues which developed in the period. Just 
as the physical image of a tunnel promotes a sense of enclosure and confinement, the tunnel 
symbol seems subconsciously to pervade Victorian literature and art as it reflects the treatment of 
women in the eyes of the male artist. Specifically, the way in which women are portrayed, both 
poetically and socially, reflects the desire by men to imprison or enclose the sexual power of 
women. For the Victorians, tunnels represent not only the thriving age of industrialization, but 
they also symbolically suggest the social confinement of nineteenth-century women. 

For the Victorians, change was occurring everywhere. From Darwinian evolution to the 
rise of Capitalism to the Industrial Revolution, this age seemed to reflect the growing demands of 
mass production and the belief in urbanization. With the invention of railways and the subway, 
the world would soon realize the growing power of Britain and her people. For the first time, 
Englishmen abandoned the simple transportation systems of carriages and horses and started to 
depend on mechanical vehicles — vehicles which were built underground, operated underground, 
and moved people underground. In effect, these long-stretching tunnels became a Victorian 
symbol of technological advancement. 

The Great Exhibition and Underground Tunnels 

Perhaps nothing expresses better the English excitement for expansion and progress 
through technology than the Great Exhibition of 1851. Promoted by Prince Albert, the Great 
Exhibition became the first world's fair, featuring thirteen thousand exhibits represented by 
cultures around the globe. England had "all the world going to see the Great Exhibition of 1851" 
(Wilson 145), an exhibition located in the "Crystal Palace" which was made out of glass and 
steel. The 902 panes of glass it took to build this "Palace of Glass" reflected the urbanization 
and mass production of the era. Even the infrastructure of this monumental symbol of British 
industrialization curiously resembles a tunnel. With its long, horizontal design, the exhibition 
floor stretched for yards from one end of the building to the other. In fact, a visitor could stand 
at one end of the Crystal Palace and look down to the other, as if it were a straight pathway 
underneath these reflective panes of glass. The enclosure of the glass ceiling symbolically 
reflects the way visitors could look out of this tunnel-like infrastructure but at the same time be 
closed in physically. The similarity between the structural design of the Crystal Palace and the 
architecture of one of London's underground tunnels is best described by Robert Thorne: 

At Paddington Station (1851-4) the design team (including, once again, Fox Henderson) 
sought to perpetuate the lessons of the Crystal Palace in more permanent form while 
memories of the original were still fresh. The bays at Paddington are on a 30-foot 
module, rather than the 24 feet at Crystal Palace, and the roofs are elliptical arches, but 
the similarities between the two projects are obvious. No other major railway station 
followed the language of the Great Exhibition quite so closely. (181) 



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Constructing Paddington (Praed Street) Station, London, 1866-8. Picture Reference: 10325362 

As exemplified by the Crystal Palace, the image of the tunnel, whether consciously or not, 
miiTors real Victorian concerns about the social confinement of the period. 

Just as the tunnel becomes a symbol for Victorian expansion and progress, the enclosed 
and confined underground tunnel also symbolizes the psychological entrapment of women. It is 
often said that the Victorian Age was an age of contradictions. Women were supposed to take 
care of the home and hearth — to stay in their domestic sphere and uphold the virtues of the 
family. Numerous conduct books for women became widespread during the century, including 
Sarah Stickney Ellis' The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits and 
Isabella Beeton's The Book of Household Management . These publications praised the role of 
the wife and mother, and they supported the domestic duties of all women. The entire society 
revered this "woman of domesticity" who helped shape the ideal family home. Contrarily, the 
period also birthed a generation of advocates against the established traditions of women's roles. 
Women like Florence Nightingale and Frances Powers Cobbe sought social reform for the rights 
of women. Rights for equal opportunities for education seemed to be at the forefront of these 
concerns and John Stuart Mill became a campaigner for gender equality. Although the treatment 
of women remained a constant issue among Victorians, the way in which men portrayed their 
female subjects through their art remained fixed. In art and poetry, the voices of women are 
forever buried and closed off; Victorian women are suffocated and motionless in the canvas or 
on the page. Like the underground, they are entrapped by their male makers and are exorcised 
from society. 

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar expound on this idea of 
the confined woman in their chapter titled "The Parables of the Cave." In this chapter, they take 
Plato's Allegory of the Cave and relate it to the story of women in the patriarchal Victorian 

society. Like the men in Plato's passage who are imprisoned in the underground cavern because 
of their delusions, so too, are Victorian women "imprisoned in, not empowered by, such caves" 
{Madwoman 93). Gilbert and Gubar remind us that "a cave is — as Freud pointed out — a female 
place, a womb-shaped enclosure, a house of earth, secret and often sacred" (93). While a cave is 
supposed to be a positive feminine space for "the woman whose cave-shaped anatomy is her 
destiny" (94), a place which is secret and sacred, it instead becomes a restrictive holding place 
for women. For Plato and his culture, the place to hold these prisoners is in an underground 
cave; for the Victorians with their technology, the place to hold their prisoners is in the 
nineteenth-century subways and underground transportation systems. Just as Plato's male cave- 
dwellers are deluded about reality, the wives, mothers, and daughters of the Victorians were 
deluded to think about their social position as one of inferiority and second-best to man. "The 
Parables of the Cave" bears great insight into the claustrophobia of women: "the women of this 
underground harem are obviously buried in (and by) patriarchal definitions of their sexuality [...] 
enclosure without any possibility of escape" (Madwoman 94). Writers such as Tennyson, Dante 
Gabriel Rossetti, and Robert Browning create in their poetry women characters who are very 
much trapped inside enclosed structures and are, like the Plato's cave-dwellers, instilled with the 
idea that shadows of reality represent the real world, rather than the true essence of reality. 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson 

In many of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's early poems such as "Mariana" and "The Lady of 
Shalott," one can see how the female figures have been portrayed as isolated and alienated. 
These women are entrapped by both their physical environment and by the poet himself and are 
mutes who are confined to the imagination of their creator. They are portrayed through a man's 

perspective and are thus unable to have their own voices heard. Critics Sandra M. Gilbert and 
Susan Gubar put it perfectly when they write: 

For if the author/father is owner of his text and of his reader's attention, he is also, 
of course, owner/possessor of the subjects of his text, that is to say of those 
figures, scenes, and events — those brain children — he has both incarnated in black 
and white and 'bound' in cloth or leather. (Madwoman 7) 
Male poets and artists have the tendency to choke out the voices of their subjects in their 
portrayal. In "Mariana," the leading lady is isolated from her society. She remains "upon the 
lonely moated grange" (1. 8) and looks out into the night crying for her dear Angelo to come to 
her side. She closes herself in as "she [draws] her casement-curtain by" (1. 9) and endlessly 
resounds those dreadful words, '"I am aweary, aweary, / Oh God, that I were dead'" (1. 83-4). 
She represents the abandoned woman. Mariana pines away for her lover day after day, for she is 
dependent on the presence of a male. The only voice that she has is the suppressed one that her 
male creator has fancied. Both Mariana's fictional lover Angelo and her poet-creator have 
closed all doors for her and have left her sleepless and forever mourning in her decaying halls. 
She is utterly defenseless against both of these male forces. As Thais E. Morgan states, "The 
fact that Mariana wishes to die suggests that the male poet's appropriation of the feminine 
preserves rather than changes the dominant ideologies of separate spheres" (205). Tennyson 
himself seems to endorse the prevailing attitude about a woman's reliance on a man, and he 
supports Mariana's enclosure as he creates the ending to her story. In his poem, Mariana 
remains forever closed off from Angelo and from her society, whereas in Shakespeare's Measure 
for Measure, Mariana eventually is granted a marriage with her defiant fiance. Tennyson's 
deliberate reversal of Shakespeare's original Mariana confirms what Victorians assumed about 

women — that they are helpless and silent without their male "rescuers." It is unclear whether 
Tennyson as a male poet supports this view of women which he portrays. What is clear, 
however, is that Tennyson is very much a man of his time. He creates medieval female 
characters whose fates reflect the fates of Victorian women. His characters are imitations of 
Victorian women who have no social freedoms. 

In a social context, Mariana very much represents the Victorian woman who strongly 
yearns for gender equality and educational opportunities, but is confined to her homely 
responsibilities. Society has imposed certain domestic duties on her and she cannot leave her 
place. Women like Mariana can only look outside their windows and dream dreams: "All their 
place and visions seem vanished, and they know not where; gone, and they cannot recall them. 
They do not even remember them. And they are left without the food either of reality or of 
hope" (Nightingale 1511). Just as Mariana lives in a world in which she must be passive and 
wait for her beloved Angelo, women in the male-dominant Victorian age are confined to 
passively wait for their social equality. In Carol Dyhouse's essay, "Role of Women: From Self- 
Sacrifice to Self-Awareness," she confirms the nineteenth-century notion that women are to be 
submissive, passive, and self-sacrificing for their family and their society. Women are to strive 
towards the Ideal Woman, perfect in appearance and behavior; and to do this, the Victorian 
woman must silently resign her own desires for those of her family (174). Also, Dyhouse quotes 
in her essay a letter from a father to his daughter. In A Father's Legacy to His Daughters, 
written in 1774, Dr. Gregory says, '"Your whole life is often a life of suffering [...] You must 
bear your sorrows in silence, unknown and unpitied'" (175). This reinforces the idea that 
women's voices are to be buried and closed off. Tennyson has created in Mariana this Victorian 


concept of the Silenced Woman — a powerless figure who suffers privately within her isolated, 
confined space. 

"The Lady of Shalott" depicts yet another female subject who has been closed off by 
society and whose voice has been buried. First of all, she is physically closed off by four castle 

Four gray wall, and four gray towers, 

Overlook a space of flowers, 

And the silent isle imbowers 

The Lady of Shalott. (11. 15-19) 
She is in touch with the outside world only through her mirror, and even then she sees only 
where "shadows of the world appear" (1. 48). She lives life from the inside and desires to get 
out, for she is "half sick of shadows" (1. 71). When the Lady of Shalott sees the reflection of the 
"red-cross knight" Lancelot, she throws down her mirror and goes down to Camelot to find her 
knight; but by making her bold step outside of her enclosed tower, she initiates the curse upon 
her and sings her last song. As she floats into Camelot, she becomes deathly silent. Her last 
song is heard faintly by the villagers, but no one heeds her coming: the "knight and burgher, lord 
and dame" (1. 160) wait for her noiseless arrival. She has been so long enclosed inside that tower 
that even when she escapes, she is still unable to be heard. The Lady of Shalott, like Mariana, is 
fixed in a patriarchal society where she must endure a solitary life while waiting for happiness 
that only a man can give her; but contrary to Mariana, she reacts against social and physical 
confinement. She ventures out, and what is her fate? A silent, unheard death. The Lady of 
Shalott is destroyed because of her self-assertion and forward actions toward liberality — a 
woman's liberality that Victorians themselves would have disapproved of. 

The implication in both of these early poems by Tennyson is that if a woman continues to 
live within her closed, claustrophobic environment she cannot survive. Likewise, if she rejects 
social tradition and steps out into that male-dominant world, she will be forcibly silenced and her 
voice will be choked off. For both women, their fates are sealed with destruction. Being a man 
of his time, Tennyson knows that these women cannot be expected to survive their enclosure. As 
feminist critics Gilbert and Gubar assert, "A life of feminine submission, of 'contemplative 
purity,' is a life of silence, a life that has no pen and no story, while a life of female rebellion, of 
'significant action,' is a life that must be silenced, a life whose monstrous pen tells a terrible 
story" {Madwoman 36). For the Victorian woman, both choices bring about a cursed life. In his 
book Rossetti and the Fair Lady, scholar David Sonstroem describes the "sexually innocent 
ladies whose lovers victimize them nevertheless by deserting or tormenting them" ( 104). 
Although Sonstroem's comment is specifically regarding some of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 
feminine subjects, a like parallel can be made between Rossetti and Tennyson's portrayal of the 
female subject. The Lady of Shalott and Marianna are innocent ladies who are abandoned and 
destroyed by their male lovers. 

The fact that Tennyson chooses to portray Mariana and the Lady of Shalott in such 
trapped situations is telling of man's outlook on the established role of women. Not only are the 
women themselves victims of Angelo's betrayal and Lancelot's ambivalence, but they are also 
the victims of their poet-creator. Tennyson gives them no choice to change their fate: if Mariana 
does not leave her grange, she dies; if the Lady of Shalott leaves her tower, she dies. Both 
women are incapable of changing the fate that Tennyson has created for them, just as nineteenth- 
century British women are confined within their domestic spheres with buried voices. The 
woman is portrayed just as the male creator-poet chooses to reveal her: 


As a creation 'penned' by man, moreover, woman has been 'penned up' or 
'penned in.' As a sort of 'sentence' man has spoken, she has herself been 
'sentenced': fated, jailed, for he has both 'indited' her and 'indicted' her. As a 
thought he has 'framed,' she has been both 'framed' (enclosed) in his texts, 
glyphs, graphics, and 'framed up' (found guilty, found wanting) in his 
cosmologies." (Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman 13) 
With Mariana and the Lady of Shalott, both of their confined environments and social 
entrapments symbolize the way in which many men in the nineteenth-century objectified 
women, including the way in which poets and artists portrayed their female subjects. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

Perhaps no other artist and poet during the Victorian Age adored women as much as 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti did. From describing them as angels and fallen women in his poems to 
painting them as damozels and temptresses on his canvases, his fascination with the beauty of a 
woman pervades his entire artistic consciousness. Stanley T. Williams concludes that with a 
study of Rossetti's poems "The Blessed Damozel" and "Jenny," one can see "both in the joy and 
in the sorrow the central feeling is that of his ideal: beauty in woman as a symbol of the artist's 
ideal beauty" (198). Although Rossetti's notion of the Ideal Beauty allows him to appreciate and 
admire women, this is the very thing that drives him to victimize his female subjects, both 
artistically and personally. He idolizes his female subjects to the point that he becomes 
disillusioned with what beauty really is; for in these poems one can see the change from 
"idealizing illusion to bitter disillusion" (Johnson 1 19). Even his beloved Elizabeth Siddal, with 
her imperfect health and facial freckles, cannot live up to the perfect standards of womanhood 


that his paintings try to present. By insisting on perfect women for his perfect art, Dante Gabriel 
Rossetti creates female subjects that try to live up to his impossible standards, but are closed off 
and barred from society, just as the underground Victorian tunnel is buried from the observable 

In Dante Gabriel Rossetti's early poem "The Blessed Damozel," he creates a heavenly 
woman who is dissatisfied with her sanctified place in Heaven and yearns to be with her earthly 
lover. Although she is in that perfect place of blessed safety, she is closed off from her true 
desires. As she "cast[s] her arms along / golden barriers" (1. 141-42) of heaven, the Blessed 
Damozel yearns "to live as once on earth / With love" (1. 129-30). She is trapped by the bar that 
separates Heaven and Earth and is disenchanted by Heaven's perfect atmosphere. Like 
Tennyson, Rossetti has created a powerless woman who must wait for a male figure in order to 
attain what she believes to be true happiness and to be integrated into society. Perhaps Paul 
Turner summarizes this poem best when he says, "The Blessed Damozel' was a carefully 
composed portrait of a dead girl, waiting Mariana-like for the arrival of her earthly lover [...]" 
(117). Even in the end of the poem, the woman's desires are heard but not listened to: her tears 
are shed, but not consoled. The other angels leave her upon heaven's bar to weep alone as she 
mourns her unloved state. Her claustrophobia and entrapment in Heaven (which is supposed to 
be the "place of comfort") parallels the nature of the buried tunnel in Victorian life. The Blessed 
Damozel has ultimately become both the victim of sorrow and despair, and she represents the 
suffocating woman — a woman who is suffocated by the torment of living without her lover, and 
who is also closed off from any true attachment to heaven and earth. 

In Rossetti's famous poem "Jenny," the speaker in the poem has hired a woman of service 
for the evening, but she has "fallen" asleep on his lap. He therefore has time for reflection, 


although he reflects not on his decision to hire this woman, but he wonders what she thinks of, 
how her life has been spent. He views this "lazy languid Jenny" not as an active, living, 
breathing woman, but as an object. At first read, this poem might seem like a man's epiphany of 
the injustices of prostitution and the "dark path [he] can strive to clear" (1. 390). But upon a 
closer examination, this is a poem about power; specifically, it is a story of a man's self-projected 
superiority over Jenny. Throughout the speaker's monologue, he implies that Jenny is inferior to 
him socially and intellectually. However, the main reason the male speaker thinks Jenny is 
beneath him in every way is that she is a prostitute. Because of her profession, Jenny is belittled 
and degraded by her buyer. As defined by her male counterpart, woman is "in the dark tunnel" 
both socially and intellectually. Her voice is buried just as the Victorian tunnels led people 
underground and closed them off from social interaction. 

From the first line in the poem, readers are thrown full force into the male speaker's 
world — a world encompassing harsh and critical attitudes toward Jenny, his prize. Throughout 
the course of the poem, he insensitively calls Jenny many things: "Lazy laughing languid Jenny" 
(1. 1), a "thoughtless queen of kisses" (1. 7-8), "poor little Jenny" (1. 299), and others. Again and 
again, she is called "poor," "shameful," "my Jenny" (my italics), implying that she is lesser than 
him and she is his property. The male speaker never forgets that Jenny is a prostitute, and he 
uses her profession as a way of degrading her. He reminds himself that she is a "fallen" woman, 
with her "silk ungirdled and unlac'd" (1. 48). He prides himself on the fact that he is kind enough 
to dine her and give her rest, unlike her other customers. Perhaps he even thinks of himself as a 
Christ figure, echoing the promise Jesus made when he said, "Come to Me, all you who labor 
and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (New King James Bible, Mt. 1 1:28). Pompously, 
he says to her while she is asleep, "perhaps you're merely glad / That I'm not drunk or ruffianly / 


And let you rest upon my knee" (1. 64-66). Obviously, she is so lucky to have a thoughtful, kind 
man like him, a man who believes himself doing her a great service by charitably giving her 
some food and a place to rest. While these things he does for her would be genuine in and of 
themselves, they are not because of his reproachful attitude toward her. He does them so that he 
looks like the knight in shining armor, the noble savior who can lift up the fallen and rescue one 
from the enclosed underground tunnel. 

Further in the poem, the male speaker reminds himself (and Jenny while she sleeps) that 
she is a prostitute as he imagines how others view Jenny. He tells her that other people "[point] 
you out, what thing you are: — / Yes, from the daily jeer and jar, / From shame and shame's 
outbraving too" (11. 79-81). He acknowledges that she is made fun of by others because of the 
"thing" she is, and that her profession exudes shame. Even all the "learned London children 
know, / Poor Jenny, all [her] pride and woe" (11. 143-144). It is curious, though, that never once 
does he ask her how she sees herself, but he assumes that she must be shamed because that is 
what he and others believe. In fact, he is afraid that she is so defiled that she might contaminate 
him, for he says, "I've filled our glasses, let us sup, / And do not let me think of you, / Lest shame 
of yours suffice for two" (1. 90-92). In his attempt to remain holier than her and superior to 
Jenny, he hopes that her shame will not overtake him too. It is okay for her to be shamed, 
besides, she is a prostitute after all, but for a learned man to be shamed is outrageous. His 
superiority is assumed merely because of her profession, and he continuously degrades her 
person because of it. The ironic thing is that he is the one who buys her services. So, he is just 
as guilty of the immoral activities which he accuses her of; however, as A. N. Wilson reminds 
us, the woman will always be the guilty and blamed because Victorians believed "[her] sin was 
much greater than the man's" (308). 


As the male speaker continues to mention Jenny's poor fallen state, he also sets her up 
beside other more virtuous women. He tries to emphasize the fact that she is inferior to him and 
others by comparing her to those whom he sees as socially superior. For instance, when he looks 
upon her sleeping state, he marvels that she actually looks like other women. He says, "Just as 
another woman sleeps!" (1. 177). He cannot believe that this lowly, shamed woman can share 
any characteristics with other women, especially women like his cousin Nell. The male speaker 
consciously makes mention of his cousin to set up a dichotomy between the virtuous Nell and the 
fallen Jenny. After making his comparisons, he says, "So pure, -so fall'n! How dare to think / 
Of the first common kindred link?" (11. 207-208). He cannot even fathom his cousin sharing any 
traits with this woman whom he bought on the dance floor. His attitude here is entirely 
condescending as he believes Jenny to be utterly inferior to all of the women he knows. How 
dare she think that she shares something with the virtuous Nell? Certainly, the male speaker uses 
Jenny's profession as a motive for puffing himself up and for knocking her down. He has 
confined her to her profession and she cannot escape his harsh judgments or the disparaging 
glances of others. 

Obviously, the male speaker in Rossetti's "Jenny" assumes his superiority over Jenny 
because of her profession as a prostitute. He denigrates her as he calls her insulting pet names 
and reminds himself what she must look like to others. In a thorough analysis of the poem, it is 
obvious that the man thinks of Jenny as being inferior to him in two ways: socially and 
intellectually. First of all, the male speaker asserts his social superiority over Jenny by 
controlling her movements and her actions. At the beginning of the poem, Jenny begins to fall 
asleep and he says, 

Well, well then, keep 


Your head there, so you do not sleep; 

But that the weariness may pass 

And leave you merry, take this glass. (11. 93-96) 
He does not want her to sleep; he wants her to stay awake and be merry for him. He did pay for 
her services, after all. He believes his desires to be more important than her physical need of 
sleep, so he feeds her and gives her drink to stay awake. When she begins to doze into a 
slumber, he succumbs and allows her to rest "[her] head upon [his] knee" (1. 19). According to 
E. Warwick Slim, Jenny's head on his knee is "the representative virtuality of female weakness 
('as if grown light) resting in a male heaven" (135). She lies down in the male space, just like 
many Victorian women must lie in a social male space as they are forced to live in a patriarchal 
society. The speaker asserts his power over Jenny by believing himself to be the creator of her 
life, just as "the potter's power over the clay" (1. 181). She becomes so drained of any rightful 
power that he cannot even recognize her as a woman; she is merely purchased merchandise. The 
longer he looks as her, "the woman almost fades from view" (1. 277), and only an object 
remains — an object that is "Poor little Jenny, good to kiss — " (1. 299). The way in which the 
male speaker objectifies Jenny and proclaims his social superiority over her is telling of attitudes 
pervading Rossetti's own society. The male buyers and familial breadwinners have the power, 
while the woman, either the prostitute or even the domesticated wife, must remain closed off and 
socially buried under his all-encompassing home rule. 

Perhaps the clearest way the male speaker establishes his power over Jenny is by 
reaffirming his intellectual superiority. In the third stanza of the poem, readers are immediately 
introduced to two different lifestyles, that of a learned man and that of a dancing girl named 
Jenny. The male speaker's room is full of books, and he is sure to let Jenny know that his room 


is more highly valuable than hers. He explicitly acknowledges his superior intellectual capacity 
when he says, "This room of yours, my Jenny, looks / A change from mine so full of books" (II. 
22-23). From the beginning, the male speaker makes us aware that he meets Jenny dancing idly 
at the party because he is tired of studying. He is drawn away from his intellectual activities to 
lower himself to her level on the dance floor. He even admits that when dancing, "it was a 
careless life [he] led" (1. 37). By saying that his life was insignificant when he is dancing, he is 
indirectly insulting Jenny's way of life. By degrading her enjoyment, he insults Jenny herself. 
Dancing is a thoughtless activity only fit for lazy, careless women, while the man's place is in the 
study and in the universities. The male speaker in Rossetti's "Jenny," therefore very much 
represents prevailing attitudes about women during the nineteenth century. Because women had 
such limited educational opportunities, many young girls and women were raised to become 
wives, mothers, and caretakers. Their vocation was in these roles and their workplace was in the 
home. Until the 1870s, women were not even allowed to study at universities and even then, 
they were not granted degrees until decades into the twentieth century. Therefore, men were 
thought to be intellectually, emotionally, and physically superior to women, and this explains the 
male speaker's attitude toward Jenny in Rossetti's poem. The speaker knows he is intellectually 
superior to Jenny, and he smugly reinforces this time and time again. 

As the poem continues, the male speaker gets even more self-righteous about his 
intellectual superiority. He not only blatantly expresses that he is more learned and his space is 
full of books, but he also begins questioning her own mental capabilities and even goes so far as 
to think for her. He stares at her intently and realizes "what a book [she] seem[s], / Half-read by 
lightning in a dream! /How should you know, my Jenny?" (11. 51-53). This small passage is full 
of meaning. First, Jenny is compared to a book, half-read and dusty as the male speaker asserts 


himself to be in control, to be the author of her story. The other side of the book metaphor 
suggests that Jenny is ultimately a mystery to the narrator. Her "half-read" pages represent a text 
that the speaker wants to master and define, but her life is a text that he cannot decode or 
decipher. Just like other male figures in the Victorian patriarchal society, he assumes that he is 
the best interpreter of her story. Gilbert and Gubar believe that "it is just because women are 
defined as wholly passive, completely void of generative power (like "Cyphers") that they 
become numinous to male artists." (Madwoman 21). The instilled passivity of women coupled 
with the potent activity of men left Victorians constantly trying to understand and define each 
other. Because men adopted aggressive roles in the community, their aggression spilled over 
into the domestic sphere, where they began playing the role of the dominant husband, father, or 
lover. The male speaker in "Jenny" assumes the role of a dominate lover which leaves Jenny 
unable to act as an active, powerful woman. 

Further, the last line in this excerpt reveals the speaker's attitude about Jenny's own 
intellectual qualities. He disdainfully asks why she should understand what he is saying, for she 
is merely an uneducated, female prostitute. And because Jenny does not have the faculties to 
think intelligently for herself, the male speaks takes it upon himself to think for her. As she "sits 
there — deaf, blind, alone" (1. 291), he wonders what she thinks, and he spends the majority of the 
poem creating her thoughts for her. The first time he does so occurs when she falls asleep and he 
says, "For sometimes, were the truth confess'd, / You're thankful for a little rest, — " (1. 67-68). 
How does this man, who meets Jenny that very night, have the ability to understand what it is 
that Jenny is thinking? He has already addressed her as "the thoughtless queen / Of kisses" (1.7- 
8) and now he intends to reveal her thoughts without truly understanding her. He meets her only 
that evening, but he becomes comfortable with describing her life as if she is a person who can 

be easily classified and categorized by her profession. One of the most ironic aspects of the 
poem is that while the speaker continually assumes his right to speak and think for Jenny, 
inevitably he cannot control her thoughts and dreams; and his attempt to articulate those for her 
suggests his uneasiness with his power over hers. 

He does not want to know the true Jenny, her true essence; rather, from his male 
perspective, he classifies her and refuses to investigate her true voice. In fact, even though the 
poem is entitled "Jenny" and she is the main subject, never once is her voice heard. She is silent, 
asleep, unconscious. The male buyer has created a voice/or her and has imposed all of his 
prejudices and preconceived ideas about prostitutes onto her. He treats her as an uneducated, 
thoughtless woman who has been shamed by the public life: 
Like a rose shut in a book 
In which pure woman may not look, 
For its base pages claim control 
To crush the flower within the soul; (11. 253-56) 
This image of a rose being shut up between the pages of a book seems to suggest the fact that 
fallen women like Jenny are shut up and pinned in by their society. Just as many Victorian 
women were intellectually locked in the dark and enclosed in metaphorical underground tunnels, 
Jenny is entrapped within a book, a phallic symbol linked to the male speaker's source of power. 
E. Warwick Slim comments on the speaker's book metaphor when he says, "Figuring her as text 
makes her ideologically inferior, the passive text read by the active reader, and he even denies 
her the possibility of understanding his metaphor: 'How should you know, my Jenny?' (line 53)" 
(148). It is appropriate and interesting that Jenny is compared to the rose, a growing, thriving 
plant which has been choked off by the male speaker's powerful devices—his intellect. Rossetti 


is brilliant in that he develops this book metaphor from the third stanza, with the speaker's room 
of books, thus setting up the connection between the male speaker and books. Although Jenny is 
also compared to as a book, she does not get her source of power from books because she is 
"half-read" and the "pages of her brain / [...] Close back upon the dusty sense" (1. 160, 162). 
According to Rossetti, her mind is desecrated and tattered; but the male speaker on the other 
hand can use books symbolically to wield his power because he believes himself to be educated 
and intellectually superior. 

Although the male speaker believes himself to be intellectually superior to Jenny, his 
insistence on thinking for her and for knowing what is best for her is a way of dealing with his 
own inferiority complex. Because she is a text he cannot decipher or read or penetrate, he is 
inevitably intimidated. Perhaps this is why he is so aggressively displaying his condescending 
attitudes toward Jenny. Brian and Judy Dobbs write, "many men were so unsure of themselves 
in dealing with the opposite sex that they were at ease only with a woman to whom they could 
feel socially superior" (86). These critics also remind us that many of the Pre-Raphaelite 
painters and thinkers, such as Ford Madox Brown, William Holman Hunt, John Ruskin, F. G. 
Stephens, and Rossetti himself, married or planned to marry women who were intellectually 
inferior to them. Just as many Victorians promoted the idea of women's inferiority to men, "poor 
shameful" Jenny is represented as being unequal to the male speaker in all qualities of life. He 
can summarize her life and comment on her fallen state, but the ironic thing is that once she 
wakes up, he has nothing more to say. He can assume his superiority over her when she is asleep 
and silent, but once she opens her eyes (and her mouth), he grows silent. The male speaker in 
"Jenny" represents the fear that Victorian men possessed with giving women too much freedom 
or a voice of their own. 


Men in the Victorian Age did fear what would come about if women gained too much 
intellectual freedom, but curiously, women too were growing suspicious of female advancement. 
Rossetti's male speaker comments on women's fears when he says, "Even so unto her sex is [...] 
the life-blood of this rose, / Puddled with shameful knowledge" (11. 275, 264-65). Obviously, 
women were also endorsing gender inequality, as Rossetti makes mention of in these lines. In 
his powerful work The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill acknowledges that women 
encouraged the idea that the woman's place is in the domestic sphere and that she is commanded 
to be lesser than her husband (1088). Many traditional women were staunch advocates of the 
woman's domestic sphere. The Queen of England herself believed that women were to remain in 
their appropriate domestic sphere. It is interesting that even though she was "the most powerful 
woman on earth, she denounced 'this mad, wicked folly of Women's Rights'" (Henderson and 
Sharpe 101 1). In a letter written by Queen Victoria on May 29, 1870, she writes, 

The Queen is most anxious to enlist every one who can speak or write to join in checking 
this mad, wicked folly of 'Woman's Rights', with all its attendant horrors, on which her 
poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety... It is a 
subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself. God created 
men and women different — then let them remain each in their own position, (qtd. in 
Marsh 98) 
Throughout the endless discussions and debates about the appropriate and customary role of 
women in England during the nineteenth century, one thing is certain: women were very much 
spoken for. In "Jenny," the male speaker is dominant and in control: He meets with her on the 
dance floor. He speculates about her dreams. He creates her thoughts and desires. He allows 
her to sleep for a while. He leaves her in the morning. The male speaker is constantly intruding 


on Jenny, which is yet another way he violates her. Because of this intrusion, Jenny's voice, just 
like the voices of many Victorian women, is silenced. Nina Auerbach even goes so far as to 
suggest the "interchangeability of the bought woman and the possessed wife, but at the last 
moment she [the bought woman] is always ostracized from the sanctity of the hearth" (33). 
From the possessed wife to the fallen woman, the way in which the male artist or male speaker 
defines the female voice is one of oppression and entrapment-the same feelings of restriction 
which the image of the underground tunnel creates for the Victorians. In his wonderful essay 
titled "Prostitution, Representation, and Desire: The Politics of Male Liberalism in 
D.G. Rossetti's 'Jenny," E. Warwick Slim writes, "Jenny is not an individual by this account: she 
is a generic image, the culmination of a cultural history of gender representation" (133-34). 
In thinking of Jenny as a Victorian woman whose voice has been buried in a masculine space, 
Jenny becomes more than the subject of a poem. She becomes a cultural icon. 

While Jenny can be seen as a cultural icon to readers of the twenty-first century, Jenny 
still remained an icon of monetary value to her male buyer in the poem. In fact, the speaker of 
the poem begins his monologue saying, "LAZY laughing languid Jenny, / Fond of a kiss and 
fond of a guinea" (1. 1-2). From the beginning, Jenny is seen as a useable object. She is lazy and 
is only worth physical or material things, like kisses or money. The speaker uses her for his 
physical needs and then throws her a guinea for meeting those needs. Obviously, there is a 
commercial exchange taking place in the poem — an exchange involving material goods and 
sexual services. The male speaker brings Jenny home in hopes of attaining some sort of sexual 
pleasure, but she falls asleep and does not deliver the service for which she is hired. As Jenny 
sleeps, the speaker reveals his thoughts about his purchase, and we as readers quickly learn that 
his disparaging remarks about Jenny derive from the fact that she is a prostitute, merely an object 


in his eyes. Throughout the entire poem, Jenny is compared to items. She is on sale in the male- 
owned marketplace, and the speaker of the poem is buying. 

Images of commerce and economic exchange are exceedingly prevalent in "Jenny." First 
of all, as the male speaker tells his story, he constantly mentions Jenny's worth. He says to her, 
"Poor beauty, so well worth a kiss!" (1. 55), and he believes her to be "a cipher of man's 
changeless sum / Of lust, past, present, and to come" (11. 278-79). The meaning of the word 
"poor" here is twofold: first, it connotes his attitude about Jenny, emphasizing her poor, 
degraded state. Also, the word can mean Jenny's economic state, for she is poor and "fond of a 
guinea" (1. 2). Again and again, Jenny's worth is based on physical things. We have already 
seen that the speaker does not believe Jenny to have any social or intellectual worth, but now her 
worth becomes external and bodily. Her worth adds up to man's lust and his desires. She is 
continually measured up to what he believes her value to be, much like the way he believes he is 
the best judge of her personal thoughts. The speaker, as before, thinks for Jenny when he 
imagines that she dreams only of money: "I lay among your golden hair / Perhaps the subject of 
your dreams, / These golden coins" (11. 340-43). Even in her unconscious state, the speaker 
believes that Jenny only dreams of her worth and how much money she needs. It seems that he 
is more preoccupied with relating her worth than she is. He is the one who constantly reiterates 
her worth, not she. How does he know whether Jenny thinks only of money? How can he 
assume that Jenny is unhappy in her station? According to Jan Marsh, prostitution was 
sometimes a way for women to improve their circumstances and to gain social freedom (120). 
Because Jenny is never given a voice in the poem, we cannot know whether she regrets doing 
what she does, but we can know what the male speaker thinks. He assumes that Jenny dreams 
only of money and is obsessed with her value, while he himself is really the one who is guilty of 


pricing Jenny's worth. 

Another image of economic worth in Rossetti's poem is in the beauty of Jenny's hair. 
The male speaker is constantly equating Jenny's hair with money. In the first stanza of the poem 
he describes Jenny, "whose hair/ Is countless gold incomparable" (11. 10-1 1). Again, Rossetti 
creates words which express two different meanings. Jenny's "gold" hair is literal, in the sense 
that it is golden blond, and figurative because the gold symbolizes Jenny's monetary worth. For 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelite painters, the model's hair became her beauty 
mark. In his exhaustive work on the Victorians, A. N. Wilson writes, "No respectable woman 
wore her hair loose — which is what gives these loose-haired Pre-Raphaelite maidens so much of 
their erotic charm for the men who painted them and the men who bought the pictures" (163). 
Just like the hair of the Blessed Damozel in Rossetti's painting or the hair of the lady in Hunt's 
The Awakening Conscience, the hair of Jenny is what gives her sexual appeal, and it is the very 
thing that defines her worth for the male speaker. At the end of the poem when the speaker sees 
Jenny waking up he says, "I think I see you when you wake, / And rub your eyes for me, and 
shake / My gold, in rising, from your hair, / A Danae for a moment there" (11. 376-79). This 
image of Jenny shaking the gold out of her hair is both powerful and compelling. It is interesting 
that the speaker thinks of the gold as his, not hers. The fact that he calls it his gold reaffirms the 
notion that he views Jenny as an object, his object. "When Saturday night is market-night" (1. 
139), she becomes the product to be sold, the possession to be purchased, a "value sign in the 
world of men" (Psomiades 1 14). This subtle reference to Danae also reveals the speaker's 
assumed superiority over Jenny. He thinks of himself as Zeus-like, descending from the 
Heavens to sprinkle Danae with his golden dust. Jenny is transformed into the mythic figure of 
Danae as she awakes and shakes his gold from her hair. Jenny has been victimized and silenced 


by the male speaker, and like many women in the Victorian Age, she has been shut into a dark 
tunnel where there is no light, there are no voices, and there is no chance of societal escape. 

Through the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, we can begin to understand how the 
society of his time considered the issues of gender. We can further see how often times the male 
artist encourages the social confinement of women. In his personal life, Rossetti embodies the 
very fictional male artist we have been discussing. Rossetti is Angelo, Lancelot, the Blessed 
Damozel's lover, Jenny's buyer. His relationship with his model and later wife Elizabeth Siddal 
encompasses the way in which the male artist uses and speaks for his female subject. "Lizzie" 
becomes his object and he uses her to achieve the ideal beauty in his art — "his belief in an ideal 
of physical womanly beauty as a symbol of the unseen beauty" (Williams 197). For years, 
Lizzie sacrifices her time, her career, and her face for Rossetti' s all-consuming passion for art. 
As Gilbert and Gubar observe, 

Whether she becomes an objet d' art or a saint, however, it is the surrender of her 
self — of her personal comfort, her personal desires, or both — that is the beautiful 
angel-woman's key act, while it is precisely this sacrifice which dooms her both 
to death and to heaven." (Madwoman 25) 
However, Rossetti is not the only male artist that has chosen to draw on the ever-giving face of 
Elizabeth Siddal. She posed for John Everett Millais in his striking Pre-Raphaelite painting 
Ophelia, where she lay in cold bathwater for four months in the middle of English winter. For 
the art, Lizzie almost died that winter. 

Possibly the best summary of how victimized the woman subject is in the eyes of the 
male artist is in the poetry of Dante's sister, Christina Rossetti. In her poem "In an Artist's 
Studio," the speaker says, 


He feeds upon her face by day and night, 

And she with true kind eyes looks back on him 

Fair as the moon and joyful as the light: (1.9-11) 
Like a vampire, the artist feeds on his prey, the model. She is hidden behind his canvases and 
devotedly poses for hours while she loses her identity and he gains his fame. She is a "nameless 
girl," just as the Blessed Damozel is nameless and Jenny is unable to speak her own name. The 
female subject is the victim. By becoming the artist's creation, she is "Not as she is, but as she 
fills his dream" (my italics 1. 14). Just like the Victorian wife, Elizabeth Siddal must sacrifice 
her intellectual and social ambitions to meet her husband's. Rossetti and other male poets 
"ventriloquize women and endow them with certain preferred qualities" (Victorian Web). She is 
his literary subject and his physical object as she fulfills this Victorian concept of feminine 
entrapment. Like many Victorian poets and artists, "men both idealize women while they exploit 
them" (Johnson 80) for their own fame and for art's sake. 

Elizabeth Siddal, along with other women, has been placed behind canvases and written 
about in poems not with their own identities, but with new ever-changing identities which their 
creators have imposed on them. Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted Elizabeth Siddal as the Blessed 
Damozel and Beatrice, John Everett Millais painted her as Ophelia, and Walter Deverell painted 
her as Viola in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Her face is never her own; it is the artist's face, as 
"the model sits motionless, aware that her face is being scrutinized and transformed in ways 
beyond her control" (Rosenblum 85). In losing her identity, she becomes the "woman who has 
learned to remain all beautiful surface, hidden both from herself and from the men she must 
please" (Cooper 76). Just as Christina Rossetti writes, the female subject fills the male artist's 


dream as her voice is buried and closed off. Like the enclosure of the tunnel, the female's voice 
and face are buried in the imagination of her artist-creator. 

Robert Browning 

One of the great poetic icons of the Victorian Age was Robert Browning. Famous for his 
dramatic monologues, for his secret love affair with Elizabeth Barrett, and for his masterpiece 
collection Men and Women, Browning became a monumental figure in Victorian literary circles. 
In many ways he challenged poetic traditions: he integrated dramatic forms and literary forms to 
create his celebrated dramatic monologues; he tapped into the inner psyche of his subjects to 
reveal their inner selves; he revitalized Dante's verse form, terza rima, and perfected it. Despite 
these ways in which Browning went against the social grain, when depicting how women are 
treated by their male creators, he remained very Victorian. Like Tennyson and Dante Gabriel 
Rossetti, Robert Browning often creates a female character who is barred from society by an 
overbearing male figure. In depicting his female characters, however, Browning does so with 
irony. He saw the problem with enclosing women, for his own wife, Elizabeth Barrett, was very 
much oppressed by a dominant male figure — her father. In order to expose the wrongs in 
Victorian ideologies, Browning creates in "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover," and ""The 
Statue and the Bust," three women who are silenced and shut off from the outside world by 
controlling men. They are confined to their cloistered homes, buried in their own underground 

Perhaps no figure in Browning's poetry is as physically confined as Ferrara's Last 
Duchess. Readers are introduced to the Duke's last wife through a canvas — a canvas made by 
Fra Pandolf's hands by the Duke's request. The poem tells of an unnamed woman, known to 


readers as Ferrara's Last Duchess, who is dead and whose story is told only through the 
memories of Ferrara. The Duke is touring his palace with an emissary for his next father-in-law 
when he stops at the portrait and begins to tell of her deeds and her disobediences as a wife. She 
was kind to everyone she met, but the jealous husband would always be thinking: '"Just this / or 
that in you disgusts me; here you miss, / or there exceed the mark" (1. 37-9). She is constantly 
being watched by the Duke who proudly professes that he "gave commands; / Then all smiles 
stopped together" (1. 45-6). The late Duchess is trapped inside a canvas, and her story, like that 
of D. G. Rossetti's Jenny, is told by her male oppressor. Throughout the poem, the Duchess's 
character is depicted by Ferrara and her portrait is seen only by Ferrara's command, for "none 
puts by the curtain I have drawn for you, but I" (1. 9-10). He keeps her portrait hidden behind a 
curtain, just as he keeps her memories hidden from the public view. He regards her as nothing 
but a dusty piece of art, an object without any power or influence. Loy D. Martin explains the 
Duke's attitude toward the Duchess as merely a piece of art when he says, "He [Duke] considers 
works of art as discrete static objects to be owned and controlled" (76). In life and after life, the 
Last Duchess is dominated by the Duke, and she is never free to escape his grasp and remains 
forever in his canvas. She just waits lifelessly inside his imagination. 

Browning's "My Last Duchess" also reveals how the Duke regards the portrait of his late 
wife by the other artworks that he displays. Paul Turner points out the speaker's "lack of feeling 
for his first wife, except as an art-object, by his admiration of her portrait and equal interest in a 
bronze of 'Neptune taming a sea-horse,' a subject symbolic of the way he treated her" (47). She 
is a "woman [of] decoration, the male-created woman" (Brady 125). Her canvas acts like 
Mariana's moated grange, the Lady of Shalott's castle, and the Blessed Damozel's Heaven. She 
can never leave her physical environment and her face is hidden away in a canvas behind a dark 

curtain. To make a social parallel, perhaps the Last Duchess is the very domesticated, 
uneducated, inferior woman that Ellis and Beeton commended and the female figure that 
Victorian men expected in their wives. She is shaped to his desires, and her voice is never once 
heard behind his imposing dictation. 

Like Ferrara's Duchess, Porphyria's voice has been ignored and muted by her lover. In 
his poem "Porphyria's Lover," Browning creates a woman who has been silenced vocally and 
eternally by a jealous, controlling male speaker. When Porphyria "glides" into the cottage and 
out of the storm, she is compelled to sit down by her lover and she calls after him. However, he 
does not reply. He ignores her calls because he is angry with her for being away at the "gay 
feast" without him; and, when he purposefully disregards her presence, she forces his arms 
around her waist. She tries to show him affection, but he resists. She tries to retain his attention, 
but he is uninterested. Once the male lover is sure that Porphyria's love is genuine and sincere, 
he wildly thinks, "at last I knew / Porphyria worshipped me. . .That moment she was mine, mine, 
fair, / Perfectly pure and good" (1. 33-37). He is so full of rage, anger, wrath, and jealousy that 
he must have her love perpetually. He strangles her so that she can never love anyone else. 
While he was dead to her figuratively in the beginning of the poem (for he would not answer her 
call or willingly put his arms around her), she is dead to him literally by the end of Browning's 
poem. He kills her for his own pride, and he proves this as he triumphantly says, "And I, its 
love, am gained instead" (1. 55). It is too bad that her life is gone, as long as / am satisfied. His 
needs are certainly more important than her life. She is a woman that has been depicted by a 
man and confined to his desires. She is the socially confined nineteenth-century woman whose 
voice is muted and silenced by her male lover or husband. 


Because of Porphyria's independence in going out to enjoy herself at the feast, her lover 
retaliates and closes her in and will not let her escape — escape the warm cottage, escape his 
formidable hands, or escape her eternal fate. She becomes the victim of his jealousy and wrath 
and the only way for him to hold on to her is by killing her. Like Marianna, the Lady of Shalott, 
Jenny, and other female figures in Victorian poetry, Porphyria is trapped inside the 
claustrophobic underground and her voice is buried. Read socially, this poem is telling of the 
fears that Victorians had with giving a woman too much independence. If the Angel of the 
House is at the feast instead of in her domestic role, she has the potential of disrupting the social 
order. Similarly, if girls in the nineteenth century are going to school and becoming educated, 
men will begin to fear competition and displacement in the workplace. John Stuart Mill 
addresses this issue in his profound book The Subjection of Women. Seemingly, the only way for 
Porphyria's lover to keep her in his control is by becoming tyrannical and dominating her 
physically. When Porphyria first comes in from outside, she is empowered: she "glides" in, she 
"shut[s] the cold out and the storm" (1. 7), and she kneels to make the fire blaze. These sensory 
images emphasize that when Porphyria comes into the house, she brings a great amount of 
energy with her. Her sexual vitality threatens him, and the "lover" must keep her locked inside 
in order to keep her in her domestic place and to have full control over her. Poiphyria is 
physically closed into her domestic cottage and literally asphyxiated by her lover. She is buried 
in a sort of underground tunnel where there are no doors or windows or outlets to rely on for 

In both "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover," the two male speakers are trying to 
control their lovers' sexual power. Duke Ferrara admits that he became tired of the Duchess's 
behavior, for "she liked whate'er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere" (11. 23-24). 


Her inner and outer beauty sets her apart (and attracts the attention of others), and this is what 
Ferrara is most jealous of. It is the "spot of joy" upon her cheek which makes her attractive to 
other men. Her sexual vitality and energy become a threat to his manhood and his "nine- 
hundred-years-old name" (1. 33). Likewise, Porphyria' s sexual vitality also threatens her 
"lover" to the point where he must kill her in order to champion his anxieties. She comes in 
from the feast radiating with youthful vitality while her lover sits brooding with jealously. He 
knows that he has no control over her while she is outside, but when she comes in and "[lays] her 
soiled gloves by, untie[s] / Her hat" (my italics 11. 12-13), he can reestablish his authority. He 
controls her by killing her. When she is inside his domain, she must succumb to his demands 
and she is defeated, just as Victorian women become ruled by men who have established the 
patriarchal society in which they live. A. N. Wilson comments on the authoritarianism of 
Victorian men when he writes, 

Chastity was no easier for Victorians than for anyone else, but their guilt-feelings about 
sex, combined with their attitudes to economics, could lead to those presumptions of 
possession, ownership, purchase of women by men. (162) 
Because many Victorians suppressed any sexual impulses, their emotions remained very much 
bottled up, until their anxieties unconsciously surfaced, as they did for Duke Ferrara and 
Porphyria's lover. When this happens, the "patriarchal culture [...] then projects] its sexual 
anxieties on to its subordinates: women, children, the lower classes, and other nations" (Marsh 
118). It is the sexual powers that the Last Duchess and Porphyria have that their male controllers 
seek to contain. A woman's sexual vitality threatens a man, so the man strikes back in order to 
reclaim the control and power; and by placing a woman in a symbolic underground tunnel, it 
gives him a way to ensure that his voice is heard, not hers. 


Robert Browning's famous poem "The Statue and the Bust" brilliantly exposes the way 
in which women are confined to their physical surroundings by their male counterparts. In this 
poem, a lady is confined within her bedroom, confined within her marital situation, and confined 
to the social role that women in the Victorian Age were expected to fulfill. Specifically, the 
Lady has become trapped inside a symbolic tunnel — a tunnel which has been designed, built, and 
operated by men. In this poem, the builders of those oppressive societal tunnels are the Lady's 
father, husband, and even her passing lover. 

An in-depth textual analysis of this poem, reveals how the Lady has been restricted 
within her feminine sphere. First of all, the poem begins with an objective speaker telling of a 
story "our townsmen tell" (1. 3) about a statue in Florence. In the third line of the poem, readers 
are immediately thrown into a male world — a world in which stories are related by townsmen, 
not townspeople. The speaker of the poem has a male voice, and perhaps this is why the poem 
often reflects male attitudes, as we will see throughout the poem. In fact, some scholars such as 
W. O. Raymond will even go so far as to suggest that the speaker is Robert Browning. Raymond 
posits that although Browning does use dramatic monologues as a way of creating speakers, in 
"The Statue and the Bust" Browning "avowedly speaks in his own person" (144). Whether the 
speaker in the poem is the poet/creator himself or a fictional voice that Browning created, one 
thing is certain: the way in which the Lady is portrayed and the way in which all of the male 
subjects oppress her reveal many of the social ideologies in Browning's world. 

The first clue that readers of "The Statue and the Bust" are reading the life of a woman 
through the words of a male poet and male speaker is that the Lady is known only through male 
identifiers. She is first introduced as a lady, then as "a bride the Ricarddi brings home to-day" 
(1. 18). For the entire two hundred and fifty lines in this poem, she is never given a name. She 


is like the Lady of Shalott and Duke Ferrara's Duchess — she has neither a proper name of her 
own nor an empowering identity. All she is given is a room of her own, but within that room 
there is no place for her to define her own person. She is merely defined by the men who keep 
her caged in her tower. Contrarily, the men in the poem are given proper names or descriptions: 
the passing lover is "The Great Duke Ferdinand" and she is the bride of Ricarddi. There is much 
to be examined not only in the Lady's character portrayal as she is locked away in her tower, but 
also it is especially significant that she is only identified in relation to men. Realizing how the 
male speaker describes her in her identification is pertinent in understanding how the Lady is a 
victim of men's oppressiveness from the beginning of the poem. 

Once the "Great" Duke Ferdinand rides past the castle, he and the Lady first look upon 
each other with loving and curious eyes. The speaker describes the incident saying, "He looked 
at her, as a lover can; / She looked at him as one who awakes: / The past was a sleep, and her life 
began" (11. 28-30). This passage explains that the Lady's whole life has been hollow and dead 
without the Duke. As a single, capable woman, her life has been useless; it is not until a man 
enters her life that there is meaning. Her life begins with him (or so the male speaker implies). 
Also, the very night of her wedding, her newly wedded husband calmly explains "that her lot 
was cast, / That the door she had passed was shut on her" (11. 55-56). The door to her 
independence is slammed by her dominating husband and she is enclosed within a tunnel where 
there is no light, no exit, no hope of salvation. The door to marital freedom is also shut and she 
is permanently fixed in her domestic sphere. This passage resonates with echoes of what Julius 
Caesar said in 49 B.C. when he crossed the Rubicon to invade Italy. He declared "Jacta alea 
est," which means "the die is cast." The phrase actually means that an irrevocable decision has 
been made. For Caesar, his irrevocable decision is to crush through the Italian front; for the 


bride of Ricarrdi, the irrevocable decision is to be sentenced to a life guarded and subjugated. 
Her lot is cast once she becomes the property of a tyrannical husband, and any hopes of escaping 
from her enclosed tower or her own underground tunnel is irrevocably denied. 

The speaker further relates that the Lady is forbidden to leave her "window facing the 
East" (1. 59) to go to the feast. Ricarddi forbids her from physically leaving her tower, just as the 
Lady of Shalott is confined within her tower. The Lady must merely "watch [the festivities] like 
a convent's chronicler" (1. 60). She is cloistered within closed doors, shut up behind glass 
windows, and barred from the outside world. Further, it is interesting that once the Lady is 
married to Ricarddi, readers are never given any other accounts of him. It is as if he married her 
and left her for "nights and days in the narrow room" (1. 216) where she becomes a trophy bride; 
ironically, however, he never shows her off, but instead marries her for a name and status. 
Whether he fears she will leave him or he is just acting as the overprotective tyrant, he 
nevertheless initiates her entrapment. 

And what exactly is this "narrow room" like and what are the consequences if she 
escapes her "place?" Physically, the Lady resides in a narrow room where the Duke "may ride 
and pass and look / where his lady watches behind the grate" (1. 143-144). She is locked into this 
confined space where no one is said to have entered. Before the marriage to Ricarddi, her 
bridesmaids could attend her, but now that she is his object, she cannot join the festivities or go 
outside. In fact, Ricarddi is not even mentioned as attending her himself in the room. Her only 
communication with the outside world is through the glassed window where she has been shut in 
and where unhappiness is mirrored in her face. According to Ricarddi, '"If she quits her palace 
twice this year, / To avert the flower of life's decline"' (1. 104-105), there will be nowhere for 
her to go. Like Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, she will wither and fade away if she leaves her 


tower. Although she will die emotionally if she remains in her ordained place, she will die 
physically if she leaves. So, she decides to wait Mariana-like for Duke Ferdinand to rescue her, 
but both his and her indecision to act leaves her physically alive even though she is dying inside. 

The Lady herself admits her own emotional entrapment when she says of her newly 
wedded husband, 

"Your window and its world suffice, 

Replied the tongue, while the heart replied — 

If I spend the night with that devil twice, 

May his window serve as my loop of hell 

Whence a damned soul looks on paradise!" (1. 65-69) 
Here, the Lady is torn between what her head knows is expected by society (that is, to remain in 
her place as a married woman and remain submissive to her husband) and what her heart desires. 
She is disgusted by this man Ricarddi who has become an authority figure to her. Yet, the Lady 
must continue to meet social and domestic expectations by following her husband's orders. She 
must keep up the appearance of being in a happy marriage. In The Testament of Youth, Vera 
Brittain comments on her Victorian upbringing and she describes that often times men and 
women in the nineteenth century remained married because that was what was expected in the 
community. Brittain writes that society "still compels married partners who hate one another to 
live together in the name of morality" (40). In a society based on keeping up pretenses, 
marriages often became relationships based on appearances — appearances that compelled a 
woman to say that her husband's world suffices, while inside her heart is in turmoil and agony. 

In fact, the main reason why the Lady does not escape her imprisoned bed chamber to run 
away with Duke Ferdinand is another domineering male in her life, her father; for she says, "'My 


father tarries to bless my state: / 1 must keep it one day more for him'" (1. 77-78). These lines in 
the poem reveal two major things about the marriage. First of all, as evinced from earlier lines 
and from the fact that her father is to bless her state, it is obvious that the father is making a 
business transaction with Ricarddi. The marriage is arranged for the benefit of the men, not for 
the Lady. Judith Weissman will remind us that "the Lady does not love her husband [...] and that 
the marriage is a political arrangement made between powerful men, something like the marriage 
implied in 'My Last Duchess'" (12-13). Both the Lady of Ricarddi and the Duke of Ferrara's 
Last Duchess have been priced and sold by the men controlling the commerce. Secondly, it is 
important to realize that the Lady remains in her place for her father — not for her mother or for 
her parents. The men are the ones controlling this society into which the Lady is born. The 
patriarchal society is (as we have seen in the first stanza) told through the townsmen, the 
marriage relationships are controlled by the male breadwinners, and the familial relationships are 
defined by the fathers. By placing his poem in a Renaissance setting, Browning can discreetly 
comment on the social issues of his own time. With Ricarddi 's fear of feminine empowerment, 
women such as Ricarddi's bride are enclosed not only within Renaissance towers, but also 
enclosed within a Victorian claustrophobic society. 

Readers can also see the phallocentric mindset which is ingrained in Duke Ferdinand 
when he decides to wait to elope with the Lady. He confidently says, '"Yet my passion must 
wait a night. . ./ Today is not wholly lost, beside, / With its hope of my lady's countenance'" (1. 
112, 116-117). The Duke does not rush and seize the moment to take his love away; instead, he 
is sure that even if he delays, she will still be there waiting in her high tower. She is the one who 
must wait for him, just as the Victorian wife and mother is daily waiting for her husband to come 
home after work. Isabella Beeton supports the idea that women should reside chiefly in the 


home and she says, "a mistress should be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of 
cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a 
comfortable home" (1538) so that she can persuade her husband to come home after work rather 
than spending time at their clubs or taverns. Likewise, Browning's Lady must stay in her 
domestic place until the male breadwinner comes home. But not only is the Lady confined in her 
room by her oppressive husband, but she is also expected to be passive and nonchalantly await 
the arrival of her male admirer, Duke Ferdinand. Browning brilliantly symbolizes the Lady's 
inability to act when he writes, 

And she— she watched the square like a book 

Holding one picture and only one, 

Which daily to find she undertook: 

When the picture was reached the book was done, 

And she turned from the picture at night to scheme 

Of tearing it out for herself next sun. (I. 145-150) 
This book imagery exemplifies how the Lady functions in her society. She is the reader of the 
marketplace, the reader of the streets, the reader of the storybooks: She must live by reading, not 
living. While Ricarddi "brings her home," Great Duke Ferdinand "rides by with the royal air," 
and her father "tarries to bless her state," she must engage in a silent, individualistic activity. 
The men interact with the world and live in this seemingly male-controlled society: the Lady 
interacts with the nonliving book pages and acts as an onlooker on the bustling marketplace. 

Further in the poem, the memorials that both the Lady and the Duke have made are 
telling of the respective passive roles of women and active roles of men. Once the eager lovers 
realize that their love affair will never come to fruition, they both have artists create memorials 


which "[fix] a beauty never to fade" (1. 168). The Lady hires the artist Robbia to fashion a bust 
which will remain "on the window there, / Waiting as ever, mute the while, / my love to pass 
below in the square!" (1. 172-174). Contrarily, Duke Ferdinand hires artist John of Douay to 
make a bronze statue of himself to "set [him] on horseback here aloft, / Alive, as the crafty 
sculptor can" (1. 203-204). The monumental importance of these two pieces of art is not that the 
Lady's is a bust and the Duke's is a statue, but rather the importance lies in why they chose the 
memorials that they do. The Lady wants her beauty to be fixed (similar to the beauty that Dante 
Gabriel Rossetti fixes in his painting of Elizabeth Siddall), and she wants to be remembered as 
"waiting" and "mute." She is so deeply steeped in the male-dominant Victorian society that she 
accepts her role as the submissive lover and wife. Ironically, her permanent inanimate bust will 
not be much different from how she lives in that tower while she is alive. She passively waits so 
long looking down from her window that all of the townspeople see her as inanimate even while 
she is alive. The Lady has been treated as a piece of lifeless clay her entire life. The Duke's 
statue, on the other hand, aptly portrays what he and the entire male-dominant ideologies 
supposed about the "male rescuer." He is the knight in shining armor striding on horseback and 
living among the townspeople. Even after death, his memory will live on in a statue that is 
visibly engaged in the streets. While the Lady will be mute after death, the Duke wants his 
statue '"to listen the while, and laugh in [his] tomb'" (1. 212). The Lady will be silenced in life 
and her memories will be blotted out of the histories, while the Duke's voice will be heard, even 
laughing in the marketplace. Her voice will be buried — buried because of the Victorian fear of 
entrapment and a burial which implies the social confinement of nineteenth century women. 

"The Statue and the Bust" is a fine example of how the opportunities for women in the 
Victorian period became restricted by a male-centered world. Poets such as Alfred, Lord 


Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Robert Browning create male speakers who portray 
wives, mothers, and daughters as passive, defenseless objects of men's needs. Women during 
this time became socially confined to their homes or moated granges or towers, and their voices 
always remained silenced by the men in their lives. Just like the underground tunnels and 
subways that men were designing and building during the period, their female dependents were 
trapped inside those tunnels and their voices were buried with them in the underground. 
Unfortunately, many women living in the Victorian Age had to accept their domestic 
confinement for many reasons. They could not support themselves financially. They could not 
represent themselves politically. They could not prepare themselves intellectually. The only 
choice they had was to acquiesce in accepting their confinement in the man-made tunnel. 

Matthew Arnold once said, "more and more, mankind will discover that we have to turn 
to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us." (1030). The literature of the past 
has the amazing ability to interpret the values, moral, and issues of an age. In the Victorian Age, 
poems such as "The Lady of Shalott," "Jenny," "The Statue and the Bust," and many others 
convey to us as modern readers how the female subject is treated and preyed upon by the male 
artist. These poems shed light on how women have been defined in the poetry of their male 
artists/creators and confined in the patriarchal Victorian society by both men and women. Thus, 
the physical infrastructure of the enclosed and confined underground tunnel reflects the 
psychological entrapment of Victorian women — women who were, for the first time, beginning 
to seek some social and political independence, but were still forced to be silent and imprisoned 
in their domestic sphere. 


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